Adapting to virtual learning in the Special School District


Graphic by Ulaa Kuziez and Fatema Rehmani

Online learning has been a significant transition for students and staff in the Special School District (SSD).

Since March, many of us have grown used to the Zoom-meeting, online school, new-normal atmosphere. However, these adaptations have been simpler for some more than others, and several hurdles have been overlooked. Members of the Special School District (SSD) community have been working to voice their concerns. 

These hurdles include the transition to online learning for students in the SSD. Much like Parkway, and any district, every student is unique and has their own experience. However, there have been common shortcomings for students with special needs.

“I think COVID-19 has revealed how much our students benefit from in-person instruction. These students have been identified as needing things presented differently, needing someone to check on them frequently or needing a little extra explaining, but they also don’t want other kids to know that they need help,” special education and ASC teacher Lauren Perez said. “This is a very delicate balance in the virtual setting. You want to make sure kids have what they need but you also want them to feel comfortable and not like you are drawing attention to their differences. This is not ideal for anyone.”

Due to an increase of COVID-19 cases in our community, distance learning is currently the safest option for everyone. However, parents and teachers in SSD have been working to improve the virtual learning experience. 

I think COVID-19 has revealed how much our students benefit from in-person instruction. These students have been identified as needing things presented differently, needing someone to check on them frequently or needing a little extra explaining, but they also don’t want other kids to know that they need help.”

— Lauren Perez

SSD Parent Amber Barenbruegge decided to take her first-grader, Max, out of school and homeschool him, because virtual learning was difficult for him in the spring. In home school, he is now receiving his special education services through the Special Non-Public Access Program (SNAP). Her preschooler, Henry, is still attending virtual school. 

“There are multiple levels of leadership on both the partner school and SSD side, and we had to continuously go up both chains until we reached Dr. Marty and Dr. Keenan.  It was an incredible amount of work and required continuous follow up. We would often get told by SSD that Parkway was in charge of making a decision and then would get told by Parkway that SSD is in charge of making a decision,” Barenbruegge said.

Voicing her requests to the districts over a two-month period, Barenbruegge and other parents have sent close to 100 emails, made phone calls and put in dozens of hours of work regarding special education, such as access to Individualized Education Program (IEP) services online,  during COVID-19 closures. They also took guidance from the Missouri Department of Secondary Elementary Education and the Office of Civil Rights.

“Some kids just thrive from forming relationships and making connections with teachers. This is much more difficult virtually,” Perez said. “The hands-on element is not there, which truly enriches many kids’ learning. I can show videos or do demos for the kids, but it’s just not the same as them experiencing the learning for themselves.”

Nearly 150 educators protested the budget for SSD at a school board meeting June 23. Some requests included money being spent on further pay increases, hiring more teachers to address overcrowded classrooms and buying technology and resources to address disparities. 

“Some students don’t live in an environment conducive to learning,” Perez said. “Some people have little siblings or nieces and nephews at home, some people have many people in and out for various reasons, some people have multiple people working or going to school from home and it is distracting. There are a host of reasons that some students are not thriving at home.” 

Yet, several issues occurring in the SSD that are not related to virtual learning, such as allocation of funds and lack of resources, were not caused by the pandemic. Virtual learning has brought inequities to light, but these problems existed prior due to a larger societal neglect for students with special learning needs. We have made significant strides over the past 50 years for disability justice in education, but remain far from perfect. 

The number of students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has increased by a quarter over the past two decades. Yet, federal funding remains low. In 2017, the federal government only covered 14.6% of the additional cost for districts, when it promised it would cover 40%. Additionally, in March, the Federal Department of Education urged schools to offer online learning for students with disabilities, but since then, it has not provided schools any guidance on how to do so. 

“Our big concern is making sure that Parkway preschool special education students are able to continue to access their IEP services virtually if school returns in-person. This wasn’t offered under the original plan, and we’ve advocated hard for it to happen,” Barenbrugge said. “We have a high-risk child at home, and we know we’re not the only parents who have similar concerns. Both Parkway and SSD have told us they’re working to make this happen.”

While striving for continued individualized virtual education and accessibility to learning resources, Barenbrugge also mentions positives from this experience.

“Virtually, I also feel that there is a much better understanding and dialogue that can happen between the parents and teachers. Being able to observe speech and language therapy is a huge bonus too. For Henry, I can see the techniques they’re using to get him to use more words and answer questions and describe objects. For Max, I can see how they’re asking him to make the sounds and how they’re modeling it for him,” Barenbrugge said. “Their special education teachers only have them for a small number of hours a week.  By working on these skills in between sessions, we’re increasing the chance that they meet and even surpass their goals.” 

Parents and teachers have been working very hard to create a positive, comfortable learning environment virtually. However, this pandemic has significantly highlighted inequities in the district which predated COVID-19. With increased attention to the needs of all students in our community, we hope that this pandemic can serve as a learning experience for setting a better model of education for future students.